Unintended consequences of Bangkok's election
A total of 25 candidates are running for the gubernatorial election next week. However, the real race is between Number 9, Pol Gen Ponsapat Pongcharoen, the former police turned politician and No 16, MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra, the incumbent. For other new wannabes, they have no chance although a few of them proposed some great ideas appealing mainly to the young first-time voters. But they are hard to materialize.For March 3, my neighbours have a very clear choice, so do I. They have made their decision long ago, so did I. They would go for the Pheu Thai Party and I would go for Sukhumbhand. I repeat they go for the Pheu Thai Party and I go for Sukhumbhand. They picked the party and think the former police could deliver all campaign promises - no matter how extravaganza and costly they might be. I pick the individual, not the party. I would vote for him even if he is running as an independent. The Democrat Party came late to fully embrace Sukhumbhand because he was too independent and has his own mind. I like that.
Supporters of Pongsapat said he is fresh and experienced. Most importantly he is strongly backed by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. As a governor, he would work well with her and the team at the Government House. Indeed, she has been campaigning for him diligently using her popularity to win votes for him. They think having the governor from the same ruling party would make day-to-day governing of one of the world's most dynamic metropolitans seamless and more effective. Interestingly, they do not have any idea that running Bangkok and country is two different things. Neither do they appreciate the concept of check and balance.
Even though their households are in Bangna-Praves area and have benefitted from urban policies initiated by Sukhumbhand in the past four years, they still want to vote for the Pheu Thai Party. Their argument and rational are quite simple - they identify with Thaksin Shinawatra, the bona fide leader of Pheu Thai Party totally - because this government dared to make bold decisions. They place premium on decision-making and not so much on the consequential outcomes. For instance, the first car ownership was a big hit among them albeit the more congested streets and other complications. They are buying more cars - wanting an immediate dividend of having a new team and policy. In other words, they think quite readily that the best candidate is the one who can respond to their needs instantly - not the kind of visionary thing with long standing results. The Thais are not patient peoples. They are fast-food voters, wanting instantaneous fulfillments.
On the contrary, No 16 is my choice. I trust Sukhumbhand, knowing his strength and weakness. He is honest and does not sell dream nor engaging in superfluous promises and projects. Also, as a member of 50,000-strong community of disabilities in Bangkok, my friends and I have made a pledge to vote for him on the basis of his concerns and commitment to improve universal design for disabled persons and services to senior citizens. Last August, he took up a plan proposed by a coalition of disabilities groups for a taxi service in Bangkok. He immediately followed up. Seven weeks later, he offered ten vans equipped with lifts for wheelchairs as a pilot project. Now, the service has been operating for three months, it has become quite popular among the disabilities and senior citizens. The plan calls for 100 vans in every district of Bangkok so disabilities can have access to this service from their residence. Of course, a lot more can be done to improve the service but this is just a beginning.
Besides caring for disadvantage groups and plethora of policies to improve living conditions, health and education, Sukhumbhand has a clear vision of Bangkok as the hub of Asean. He was a former deputy foreign minister (1997-2000) and was a lecturer on regional politics - an expert on ASEAN affairs in his own rights. He knows how to position Bangkok in the age of globalization and to welcome the ASEAN Community. He will make Bangkok the envy of other ASEAN members, if not the rest of the world. Under his administration, Bangkok has become friendlier to visitors with improving public facilities with proliferation of English-language signs and information boards. Students under the BMA administrated schools are also learning new foreign languages. Bahasa Indonesia/Malayu would be added to English and Chinese for the young ones.
Beyond the race between No 9 and No 16, the outcome will have far reaching implications for Thai national politics in months to come. For the Pheu Thai party, this is the second-tier poll to test its popularity among the 10 million plus dwellers in Bangkok. Traditionally, they vote for the Democrat Party. With large arrival in recent years of new residents from rural areas living in the outskirt of Bangkok, voting pattern could change. Therefore, it is a kind of referendum "like" or "dislike" of the ruling party vis-a-vis the opposition. After all, it has been nearly 15 months since the Yingluck government has been in power - a good time to measure the capital city's political pulse.
Obviously, anything that can be used to weaken or better still, annihilate, the opposition party would be welcome. The stake is high for the Bangkokians, who have to exercise their judgment carefully as it could be exploited for dubious political schemes later on. Obviously, the governor's pick will serve as a barometer for the Pheu Thai Party's next strategies. If Pongsawat prevails, two big issues would be pushed forward within this year - the passage of new amnesty bill and Thaksin's return. The two issues are intrinsically linked. The constitution amendments would be further delayed as it is too contentious.
It is not surprising that the ruling party's current effort is zeroing on creating pseudo-events and narratives conducive for Thaksin's eventual return. That helps explain why the gubernatorial campaign has been vicious and unpleasant. The Pheu Thai Party wants to win Bangkok badly. Pongsapat's campaign efforts have used similar strategies successfully deployed by Yingluck when she won the election in 2011. He told reporters repeatedly that he would win the race with well over one million votes.
Will the Bangkokians fall for such entrapment? Next week will tell.